Global Context

Sensitivity to contexts

Researchers should seek to gain an awareness of the social, political and cultural contexts in which the research is to be conducted, so that communities and individuals can be informed of any aspect of the research that may cause them particular concern. In particular, they should be alert to the fact that:

  • Research in particular contexts will be affected by existing assumptions and practices.
  • There are often differences between those organising or funding the research and the researchers and participants in the host country.
  • Differences may exist between the civil, legal and often financial position of national and foreign researchers and scholars. In non-UK locations, matters such as disparity of resources or access to publications may need to be handled with sensitivity (see the Local Scholars discussion).
  • Dialogue takes place between sponsors, external and local researchers, to ensure that any inducements to take part in the research are appropriate to the local context, especially where the research exposes participants to a risk of harm.
    There should be no economic exploitation of individual informants, translators and research participants; fair return should be made for their help and services.
  • The status of the ‘visiting expert’ may be problematic; seeking the active involvement of local researchers may help to avoid this.

It is important to cultivate sensitivity to the contextual perspectives that individuals bring to the research.

The variety of beliefs and practices that exist may challenge the notions of overarching ethical principles. However, sensitivity to the values inherent in contextualised practices does not require uncritical acceptance of them. What is required is a willingness to explore differences without prejudice and to seek, as far as possible, to understand them, informed by knowledge of contextualised norms and material circumstances.

Respect for the context in which research is being conducted requires cultivation of an openness of mind. One should not, for instance, presume too much about participants’ understanding or lack of understanding of the research context. The following example provided by Pat Caplan illustrates this point.

Mafia Island Tanzania in 1965
Villagers on Mafia Island, off the East Coast of Tanzania where I lived for 18 months as a postgraduate student in the 1960s, had little understanding of the meaning of a Ph.D. much less of academic monographs. Or did they? One day early in my research I was in the fields, talking to a man who was putting up a fence. I took advantage of his static position to pose a number of questions, until he turned round and said to me: ‘What am I going to get out of all of this? You know, you will take all this information back to your own country, you will become a big teacher and make a lot of money, and we will still be here as we are now.’

Awareness of laws and regulations effecting research

Legal and ethical ways of behaving may vary between nations. Researchers should be aware of any national laws, legal or administrative regulations that may affect the conduct of their research, e.g. matters pertaining to data storage and dissemination, publication, rights of research subjects, and relationships to sponsors or employers.

In the UK, for example, informed consent is considered to be best obtained in writing. More legally binding in the UK is the requirement to obtain copyright clearance (in a written form) from the participant in order to archive the data (see also Section 14: Meeting the Requirements of the Copyright Act 1988). The act of obtaining copyright clearance may be problematic in countries where social practices are considerably different from the UK.

Researchers should also be aware that, with a few exceptional circumstances, social research data are not privileged under law and that their legal status may vary by jurisdiction. Most countries now have data protection laws. In the USA, the federal regulations governing human subjects’ research, the Privacy Act, the Freedom of Information Act and the Copyright Act are particularly important. Researchers working outside the UK should check the effects that any equivalent legislation might have on the way the research data is processed.

Ethics committees in host countries

Existing guidelines pertaining to the UK (e.g., Nuffield Council on Bioethics, April 2002 1) state that it is important, when conducting research in non-UK countries, to ensure that you have contacted the appropriate ethics committee of the country in which you propose to undertake your research. Such committees have the responsibility of sanctioning only that research which is appropriate and preventing research that is not.

Some funders, such as the Nuffield Council, have a strong recommendation that ethical review should take place both in the host country and in the researcher’s home country. Researchers should be aware, however, that there may be circumstances when it is inappropriate to work with an ethics committee in the host country (for example, in countries with repressive regimes). In these situations, or where the host country has no available ethics committees, the Wellcome Trust recommends using “an intergovernmental organisation, for example the Science and Ethical Review Group (SERG) at the World Health Organization.” 2

(See also the discussion under Relationships with Governments.)


1 ‘The Ethics of Research Related to Healthcare in Developing Countries’ – Report and Summary at:

2 On Research involving people living in developing countries



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